As you may well be aware, the labor negotiations between the MLB and the MLBPA are not going particularly well. The players are asking for things like increased pay for players on their rookie deals (a class of player MLB has been increasingly taking advantage of in recent years) and a more flexible luxury tax threshold. MLB has countered with offers that would reduce rookie pay and luxury tax threshold flexibility, especially when accounting for inflation.
Perhaps even more concerning is something that MLB slipped into their latest proposal: a clause allowing them to shrink the minor leagues even further. As you may recall, MLB has been doing everything they can to reduce the minor leagues for the past few years. Prior to the 2021 season they unceremoniously cut 42 teams out of the minor leagues. Using the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse, they allowed only five rounds in 2020 and halved the number of rounds from the 2021 draft onwards to only 20 of the previous norm of 50. If the terms around this part of the agreement are not further negotiated, starting in 2023 MLB could reduce minor league rosters even further and perhaps cut even more teams loose.
On the surface, this may not seem like a big deal for fans who care only about MLB. The vast majority of players in the 40-round draft never made it to the big leagues, much less found success there. Similarly, even at AAA, where the Omaha Storm Chasers are the final stop of a minor league system that is currently highly-ranked, you wouldn’t expect to see even half of the roster find any level of true success at the major league level. Viewed entirely in that light, it makes a kind of sense for teams to stop spending money on players and games that are ultimately very unlikely to benefit the team.
However, Alec Lewis recently shared this Dayton Moore quote from 2020 that puts things in a new light:
If, for some reason, you can’t read it, here’s the text of the quote:
“Understand this: The minor-league players, the players you’ll never know about, the players that never got out of rookie ball or High A, those players have as much impact on the growth of our game (as) 10-year or 15-year veteran players,” Moore said Friday in a conference call with local media members. “They have as much opportunity to influence the growth of our game as those individuals who played for a long time because those individuals go back into their communities and teach the game, work in academies, are JUCO coaches, college coaches, scouts, coaches in pro baseball. They’re growing the game constantly because they’re so passionate about it. So we felt it was really, really important not to release one minor-league player during this time, a time we needed to stand behind them.”
As you can tell from the end of that quote, this is from during the 2020 season and Moore is referring to the Royals’ decision to keep all of their minor league players and front office staff members while every other team around baseball found reasons to part with people in one or both divisions. Say what you will about Moore’s decisions as a General Manager, the man knows and loves the sport of baseball like few others. I have absolutely no reason to doubt his authority on this topic. And yet, 29 other teams and MLB itself have been working counter to his position for the past two years.
The question that comes immediately to mind is, “What do they see that he doesn’t?” And I can come up with a few potential answers. I’ll admit that some of them are probably more in the realm of conspiracy theory than others but, well, there aren’t any good answers here.
Possibility the first, they prioritize profits over all else
It could be that the simplest answer is the correct one. They see an opportunity to spend less money on players who will not likely directly impact their team and they take it. They don’t believe, don’t understand, or don’t care about the potential impact to the future of the sport in the US. They could either be entirely unconcerned with the future of the sport, since they are all likely to be dead by the time the bill comes due, or they could mistakenly believe that it has been a pillar of US sports entertainment for so long that they simply feel Moore’s comments are overblown.
Possibility the second, MLB is hoping someone else will take on the burden of running the minor leagues
It’s possible MLB just doesn’t want to continue running the minor leagues and would like to force/allow all of the minor league teams to go independent or join some other organization. Again, this would be about saving money but if whoever ended up in charge treated them better then it might not have the negative effects on the sport that MLB’s current behavior appear to be setting up.
Possibility the third, MLB is hoping to outsource talent development to Latin America and/or Asia
This one would be the most out-of-left-field, but it goes hand-in-hand with the first two. So, while it is unlikely, it makes sense as a next step to either of the above possibilities. The theory goes like this, in Japan and South Korea other leagues are already paying for the development of talent. Most - if not all - teams are also developing players in various Latin American countries for much less than it costs them to do so here. If they were able to continue reducing the minor leagues or eliminate them entirely, they could ramp up efforts in Latin America and in wooing talent from the KBO and NPB.
In the end, it doesn’t matter which of these possibilities is the reality. The intent is irrelevant next to the impact. That impact is: MLB’s behavior in regard to the minor leagues is not just hurting the minor leagues, it is also damaging MLB and the state of the sport of baseball in the US as a whole. The worst part is that, barring some sort of change of heart on the part of MLB or multiple owners, there’s no one left to stop them.